Keeping Vigil

First Sunday of Advent These days most people keep vigils because they are anxious. We wait in hospital corridors for news of a sick relative. A parent stays up with an infant who may be teething or has a high temperature. We might even sit by the phone waiting to be reassured that a loved one is safe and well, or that we have passed the exam or got the job. Many of these occasions are highly stressed vigils. Some of the younger or more hardy ones amongst us sometimes keep vigils that are filled with excited anticipation, as when some of us sleep out to get tickets to a sports game or concert, or when we see the old year out and the new year in.

It was not long ago, however, that vigils were a much more common feature of people’s lives. We often kept vigil with the dead. We used to keep all night vigils of prayer, especially when parishes had perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Perhaps before any of us can remember, there were also vigils kept with the Bride the night before her wedding, when she waited and watched for the sign of her approaching Groom and his attendants. The Church has enshrined the experience of keeping vigil through the Vigil Mass on Saturday night, the Vigil Ceremony in the funeral rites and the most important one, the Easter Vigil.

This tradition starts with today’s Gospel where we are exhorted to be alert, keep awake and wait for the Lord to return. In a sense this is a strange Gospel to have as we prepare for Christmas. It is linked to the first preface of Advent which reads, "Now we watch for the day, hoping that the salvation promised us will be ours, when Christ our Lord will come in glory." Our attention is, therefore, directed to a great future event, not the future feast we are about to celebrate.

This is unique. All other feasts of the Church either remember a past event, like those of Holy Week or Pentecost, or they are "title feasts" which proclaim a truth about God’s action among us which the entire church holds to be true like Trinity Sunday. But not the First Sunday of Advent. Rather than talk about the coming of Jesus at Christmas it helps us reflect on the final coming of the Lord at the end of time. It is the bridge between the "last days" of the Church’s year, which we have been celebrating over recent weeks, and the first days of the Church’s New Year.

And how does the Church ask us to approach this feast? As on a vigil. Not a vigil of anxiety, where we never want to hear the worst news. Not a vigil of excited anticipation where we pin our happiness on entry into an event. But a vigil of hope where we wait and trust in a person, who has shared our lot, understands our frailties and loved us to death. We place our hope in Jesus the Christ, our brother, savior and friend. This First Sunday of Advent we look beyond Christmas to the final moment when heaven and earth will be united and our vigil will be complete. On that day we believe the Son will have dawned once, and for all, on the world. Now, don’t you think that’s something worth being awake to see?

The first week of Advent is like the first days of other vigils wherein we pitch out tents and begin the wait to make sure we have front row seats for what is going to be, when it arrives, the best show in town! Richard Leonards, S.J.

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